Sunday, 17 July 2016

Through the Desert #8 - Falling Sky

Something a bit different for this week. A wargame! And one I just played today. GMT offers quite a selection of niche, heavy, long wargames heavily garnished with historical flavour.

I should add that these probably aren't wargames in the sense you're used to. There's very few dice to be chucked, and (fittingly for my column) you'll think it looks pretty darn Euro-y, but there's not a Victory Point in sight. Anyway, this particular title is about the struggles between the Roman Empire and the various gallic tribes around 50 BC.

This is allegedly a 1-4 player game, but really works best with 4 as there are 4 competing factions in the game each with their own victory conditions, and so ideally they have different players controlling them independently. 

As can be spotted on the box cover, this is one of GMT's acclaimed COIN series, and apparently quite an accessible one to start with. It's still pretty heavy by most standards though, so this will be a very superficial overview! Anyway, the COIN system games are driven by decks of event cards - here's an example from Falling Sky:

I'm pretty sure this is a prototype card, but I just wanted to show the layout

Along the top of the card is a priority order from left to right. Anyone eligible to take an action this turn (which broadly means they didn't take one last turn) potentially has the option of either using the event card, taking one of the main actions or passing. These can involve recruiting more troops, marching them around, launching attacks, raiding regions for resources etc etc. As implied above, if you take an action this turn, you're ineligible to take one on the next turn. You're not even in the running.

Moreover, only two factions can do anything on a given turn, and these juicy options are offered in priority order. So let's say the above card is the current event and everyone is eligible. The Romans (red square) then get first dibs. There's then only one more action available for the turn, and it'll go in priority order to the first eligible player who wants it. 

There's more layers yet! The first eligible faction has their pick of the litter on the following chart: 

The first to act takes one of the '1st Faction' options, and the 2nd faction is then forced to take the action next to it. Often the second person to take an action gets a worse turn. But if the Romans want that event - putting their marker in the '1st Faction Event' box - they're giving up a really solid action (both a Command action and a special ability) to the Aedui (blue faction). Without going too heavy into it, the factions acting after you can really influence what you decide to do depending on the current state of the battle.

One more layer! Everyone is also able to see what event is coming the following turn. If next turn's event is super strong for someone else but Romans have priority next turn too, perhaps they'll pass this turn, take the '1st Faction Command only' next turn, and then the event won't be available to anyone. Also, if you're last in priority next turn, there's a good chance passing now means you won't get to do anything next turn, so I guess you might as well do something now? Even if it's shit?

This system is genius. It gives you some seriously interesting, difficult decisions every turn and makes the turn order very dynamic. It looks like the events all have a proper historical context too, but I wouldn't really know either way :P 

There's also an almost Pandemic-esque endgame trigger in that there are three Winter event cards spaced out semi-randomly in the deck. Once one of those appears as the next event, no-one can march (move around) as the whole region is covered in frost. When the Winter card moves into the current turn, you check to see if anyone's still kept hold of their victory condition (assuming they ever obtained it!) and if so, the game ends and you determine a winner. And if not, a whole bunch of other stuff happens that I won't go into. 

Everyone knows *roughly* when these cards will come, but not exactly, so there's a great tension there for about half the game trying to position for a Winter that could arrive at any minute. 

This is a lot of text, so to break it up a bit here's a crappy phone picture of our game in action. 

The other folks in the pub garden were baffled by all the bits.

The factions seemed to be pretty well balanced in our game also. There's a whole book of different scenarios you can play out. In the one we tried, the Arverni (green) was all over the place and you had hot Gaul on Gaul action as the other Gallic factions had to consider forming an uneasy alliance with the Romans to stave off the hordes. There was a really good ebb and flow throughout and considering how long some of our decisions took (you think *I* have AP? Oh boy...) I think the 3.5 hour playtime was pretty reasonable.

As far as wargames go, the way this game takes a high-level viewpoint on the warmongering - resource management, action timing, deciding which new territories to go for and which existing ones to fortify or let go, forming and breaking alliances - was right in my wheelhouse. As opposed to micromanaging lots of individual troops, precise positioning etc. We're looking at getting together to play this sort of thing on a regular basis so I'll be trying other sorts of wargames too and reporting my findings. They'll all be as dry as this one though :D

On that topic, a quick note that the box is chock full of good quality bits and while I'd forgive anyone for saying it looks dry, it is at least colourful and I'd argue it looks pretty good on the table. GMT games aren't cheap though, and I think this one would set you back about £60.

Geek Rating: 5/6


  1. Once again you seem to have found a game that both simultaneously intrigues and scares me! Well played sir!

    1. I aim to please :D They often go hand in hand for me!